JERUSALEM — Israeli soldiers battling Hamas militants last winter in Gaza opened fire on at least seven groups of Palestinian civilians who were carrying white flags, killing 11 people, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Thursday.
During the three-week conflict, the U.S.-based human rights group says, Israeli soldiers in separate parts of Gaza killed five women, four children and two men as they used white flags to try to escape the battle zone.
The report raises new questions about the actions of Israeli soldiers during the military offensive. A United Nations investigation into possible war crimes continues. McClatchy documented in January one of the instances that Thursday's report outlines.
"The Israeli military needs to investigate," said Fred Abrahams, a Human Rights Watch investigator who conducted research in Gaza on some of the cases. "We want the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) to get to the bottom of it."
The Israeli military did not address the specific cases, but stated that carrying a white flag does not always shield someone from attack.
"Merely displaying a white flag does not automatically grant immunity, and in cases of suspicion that a person holding a white flag is endangering security forces, they are authorized to take necessary precautionary steps and, in accordance with rules of engagement, to verify and neutralize the threat," the Israeli military said in its statement.
After the report was released, the Israeli military released new edited video from an overhead intelligence camera that it said shows a Palestinian militant planting an IED during the Gaza offensive and then trying to evade capture by trying to blend in with a group of Palestinians waving a white flag to surrender to Israeli forces.
In this case, the Israeli forces captured the militant without opening fire.
"Sadly," the Israeli military said, "Hamas terror operatives ruthlessly pervert the intent of the IDF's obligations to prevent harm to civilians by exploiting those with white flags as cover for belligerent action and to protect themselves from return fire. Any person who displays a white flag in this way acts illegally, does not enjoy protection from retaliatory action, and endangers nearby civilian populations."
Human Rights Watch said it uncovered no evidence in these seven cases that the civilians holding white flags were being used by Gaza militants as human shields.
In its report, Human Rights Watch concludes that the research "strongly indicates that, at the least, Israeli soldiers failed to take all feasible precautions to distinguish between civilians and combatants before opening fire, as required by the laws of war."
"At worst," the group says, "the soldiers deliberately shot at persons known to be civilians."
Faced with prolonged criticism and scrutiny, the Israeli government recently revealed that it's looking into scores of allegations against soldiers, including five incidents in which Israeli fighters are accused of shooting Palestinian civilians carrying white flags.
Of the seven cases Human Rights Watch documented, Abrahams said, Israeli soldiers didn't intentionally kill civilians in five, each involving Palestinian civilians shot while walking down desolate roads that Israeli forces controlled. Rather, he said, the incidents appeared to be the tragic result of Israeli military directives to soldiers that they take few risks combined with poor coordination between Israeli units when civilians had a green light to flee.
Two others, however, may have been intentional, Human Rights Watch found.
In one, Palestinian witnesses said that an Israeli sniper shot and killed a 40-year-old woman carrying a white flag when she emerged from her house as an Israeli bulldozer was demolishing it in an attempt to tell the Israeli forces that there were dozens of civilians inside the home.
In the other, Human Rights Watch concluded that evidence backs Palestinian claims that an Israeli soldier opened fire on a woman, her mother-in-law and three girls as they stood on the steps of their home waving a white flag.
Two of the girls, aged 2 and 7, were killed. The third girl, 4, and the older woman were wounded. The 4-year-old was one of the few who managed to escape Gaza for special medical care in Europe.
The incident took place Jan. 7 in the Ezbt Abed Rabbo neighborhood after Israeli forces drove out the few Hamas fighters who were trying to make a stand. Khaled Abed Rabbo, whose wife, daughters and mother were involved, spoke with McClatchy a few days after the shooting.
Human Rights Watch said that evidence at the scene, medical records and other testimony buttressed the family's story. Investigators said they'd uncovered no evidence that the Palestinian civilians were trying to shield militants from Israeli attacks.
The report reveals some discrepancies in the stories that the survivors told. In January, Abed Rabbo's mother, Souad, told McClatchy that she'd pushed her son back into the house as the soldier opened fire. Khaled Abed Rabbo told Human Rights Watch investigators that he was in the house when the shooting started, however.
Abrahams attributed the inconsistency to the intense trauma the family went through during the fighting.
"Imagine if your two girls got shot and killed," he said. "It's not surprising that discrepancies come up in traumatic and chaotic situations, and they must be probed. But the fundamental narrative remains clear."
Abrahams expressed doubt that the Israeli military would or could conduct a thorough investigation and noted that Israeli investigators had yet to contact Khaled Abed Rabbo about his case.
According to Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, the Israeli military killed about 1,400 Palestinians during the conflict. Most of them, according to research by the various groups, were women, children and men who weren't directly involved in the fighting.
The Israeli military contends that it killed 1,100 Palestinians, the majority of whom were "terror operatives."
Ten Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians were killed during the 22-day conflict.
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